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In Indonesia, the UN again comes too late

Peacekeepers were finally invited to East Timor Sunday. But has the UNbeen naive?

By Sander Thoenes and Minh VoSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 13, 1999


President B.J. Habibie yesterday invited United Nations peacekeeping troops to deploy in East Timor, but failed to give any indication whether they could move in quickly enough to stop further slaughter.

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"I have made the decision to give our approval to a peacekeeping force together with the Indonesian military to maintain the security of East Timor," Mr. Habibie said in a televised speech.

Habibie also said his foreign minster Ali Alatas would go to New York to discuss the terms of the peacekeeping mission with the UN Security Council.

But he gave no hint about the arrival date, the composition of such troops, nor the form of cooperation with the Indonesian Army - a force that has openly supported the pro-Indonesian militia in its attacks.

It appears that the world's condemnations, threats of economic sanctions, and the United Nations' diplomatic mission this weekend have paid off.

But the UN will undoubtedly receive no applause for the turnaround. The smoke from the charred ruins of East Timor has cast a shadow over the UN's New York headquarters, where diplomats were stunned by Indonesia's failure to live up to its agreement.

This was supposed to be a proud moment for the UN and the East Timorese. The near problem-free, UN-run referendum 14 days ago was an opportunity for the international body to recoup some lost prestige and answer those critical of the UN's ineffectiveness in recent world crises. But revenge-seekers razed the territory's capital, Dili, and, along with it, the UN's standing.

"Nobody in his wildest dreams thought that what we are witnessing could have happened," UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said on Friday.

Mr. Annan and his advisers face sharp criticism for accepting Jakarta's promises to ensure security in East Timor, despite reports alleging the Indonesian Army's complicity in the violence leading up to the referendum. Indonesia received the world's trust even though some 200,000 East Timorese have died in the past two decades.

"If people didn't know it ahead of time, then they were very foolish," says Alfred Rubin, a professor of international law at Tuft University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass. "And if Kofi Annan did not know it, he was misadvised or he trusted the words of Indonesians who were untrustworthy."

The statements coming out of Jakarta yesterday still were vague and even contradictory.

A military spokesman indicated one hour before Habibie's talk that foreign troops would not arrive before Indonesia's highest legislative, the People's Consultative Assembly, endorsed last month's referendum that showed 78.5 percent of the East Timorese in favor of independence. That legislative vote is scheduled for late October at the earliest.

This would leave yesterday's compromise an empty one, as UN troops had been expected to take over from the Indonesian military soon after that vote. "What kind of peacekeeping force will it be?" asked an Asian diplomat. "Indonesia could set countless conditions. It seems that Australia is not welcome in such a force."